By Gretchen Wessel
Music specialists have a unique connection to Social Emotional Learning (SEL) — it is a part of just about everything we do with kids! I’d go as far as to say that SEL has ALWAYS been infused in music education and everyone else is just now emphasizing it. All across this country, there is an increase in students who we see struggle on a daily basis. They might be food insecure. They might be suffering from trauma. They might be neglected. All of these students — all of them — need us to help them navigate their world.
I am the music teacher at Colonial Hills Elementary School in Worthington, Ohio. Our school is home to a diverse student population aged Kindergarten through Sixth Grade. Students have dedicated music instruction once per week in our district. We also have a lot of additional opportunities to experience music and the performing arts because I am a huge fan of student ensembles, and I want to get as many of the kids involved in them as I can. I go out of my way to offer diverse opportunities to encourage student engagement.
I maintain a Folk Group, Samba School, Clogging Group, and several choirs and musicals that perform each year. I believe that the benefits of being involved in a performing ensemble are immeasurable. And yes, there is a ton of Social Emotional Learning going on in these groups. Last year, we had two grade-level musicals, and I was incredibly proud of the students’ shows. They have memories from their performances that they’ll never forget. However, the process and the preparation — that was the SEL gravy train. That is what I am most excited to share with you — that magic.
I introduce every show I do by really hyping it. I make it a major “glitter toss” moment when students find out what they are performing. I emphasize that they are all a part of the production, that every student matters, and every student makes a difference in our work together. We are to support one another, because first and foremost, I insist that we show kindness. This is not a one-time discussion. It is an expectation throughout the full planning, practicing, and performing process.
Then, the work begins. We roll up our sleeves (sometimes literally) and get busy. The students take ownership of their scheduled rehearsal times and they check my schedule board daily. It’s important to them. Additionally, I turn over the reins a little bit and create jobs for them. As a result, students are given a chance to develop their self-management and leadership skills. Maybe they can be on a set up crew. Maybe they can teach choreography. If a kid comes to me and wants a job, I give them one. I even assign jobs when they’re not asking! Jobs make a huge difference in my programming.
Once we get going and we’re in full rehearsal mode, the excitement is contagious. There are bumps here and there, and reminders are always needed, but we push forward. The students are set up with strong support with a host of former students and volunteers that work with them to make them feel valued and their work is respected. Student performances are powerful moments for them to share their magic and the fruit of their labors. Ultimately, students walk away with amazing memories. In our school, many students come back to repeat the process with the next generation of students. I love when this happens!
Last year, I had a student who was really struggling. If he wasn’t completely disengaged, he was attempting to distract others during rehearsal. Clearly, this child really needed me, so I made him a job offer to become my assistant. He was shocked when I told him that I needed his help. I told him that I needed his help every morning to assist me with before school rehearsals. We developed a plan together: he’d get off the bus, eat breakfast, walk into my class, get the script and the music stand, cue the music, and we’d begin. He’d follow the script and catch mistakes. He learned how to be supportive to his peers with gentle corrections. He was in third grade, and he rocked his job. My hope was that when our performance time drew closer, I could carefully work him back on stage with his peers. It all worked out, and even if it didn’t, he could have resumed his work by my side. It was a win either way. This student made a positive change by accepting an assistant position, and then found his place in our show by connecting with his peers and myself. This could have been an experience that left him feeling isolated and disenfranchised. I am thrilled that his job led to a successful experience that he can be proud of.
It’s so clear that Social Emotional Learning takes place in every step of our work. I offer my support to my students from the beginning, and in turn I expect they will be mindful of their own personal choices and behaviors (social awareness). When needed, I remind them that their actions could influence our rehearsal direction in a positive or negative way (responsible decision-making). I create opportunities for leadership roles and expect that they all manage their rehearsal schedules (self-management). I make it a priority that we establish a cooperative learning environment and that I expect that they will support one another (relationship skills).
We put SEL into action every step of the way, and at the finish line, our goal is to give the audience an amazing professional show. The Social Emotional Learning that takes place transfers into other parts of their lives, and the joy that we all have will travel with them wherever they go. It is a lot of work to have student performances, but the benefits are worth it.
To be reminded why your work is so very important and for more stories and advice, visit our collection of teacher perspectives at The Art of Teaching.